Memories of a Segregated Youth in Houston 1

My Uncle Jack worked his entire adult life at the Sinclair Refinery on Lawndale Road in the East End of Houston. He was a member and strong supporter of the union, the OCAW (Oil, Chemical and Atomic). He got the job in the early 50s because of his mother, my Granny, who was a single mom during the depression and who worked as a secretary-clerk at the refinery. This is what we would now call nepotism, of course. But it was also union policy.

On more than one occasion we went to the annual family picnic Sinclair put on at a park nearby there, can’t remember the name or locate it on Goggle Earth. It was, like all the events of my youth, without Blacks. I was vaguely aware that there was a separate Black picnic (wasn’t called that, the exact appellation depending on how polite you wanted to be). But I didn’t think too much of it until I worked at the refinery during its summer work project during the summer of 1965. Relatives of union men were hired at what were serious wages for the time  “replacing” the men would leave for summer vacation. 

Nepotism again, and I was in fact a nepos, a nephew). But because for various reasons I was last and lowest on the list for that summer I ended up in the least attractive jobs, which meant that I was assigned to railroad crews, boxcars and during turn-arounds to the hard cleaning of boilers and tanks. Which meant that I was usually the only white on those work teams (I eschew the expression with a cap W). 

This was an educational experience in various ways. 

After Friday paycheck on at least one occasion I went out drinking with my co-workers, a fresh bottle of cheap bourbon shared out in paper cups. I remember we were driving down Lawndale one evening when they told me to duck down out of sight in the backseat, cup in hand, since they were afraid of some Rednecks who would not take kindly to seeing a long-haired, (even scraggly) bearded white boy with Blacks. Rednecks do usually wear caps. 

In fact, someone must have, since the next week I was threatened by kind of gang or mob for hanging out too much with the N’s. They said they were going to hold me down and “shave off” my beard with pocketknives and grabbed me and did hold me down, but didn’t perform the cut in question. When Uncle Jack heard about this, he threw his weight around as union man and the taunting stopped but it was a true lesson in life for me. I had already inuited that I was going to go to Canada and this, along with an similar experience in 1968 on the NATO base near Leghorn, Italy (love that English name) were I had been called from Africa for my draft physical, was an annealing event.

Because of my lowly status that summer and I also met and drank after work with Lousiana-born Black Creoles, whose French is related to Haitian creole (in which I am a published scholar — for fun see Creole as opposed to Cajun, whose French derives from Acadia. Now that was a special gas since I was on my way to France at the end of that summer and they loved hearing me speaking French French, such as I could at that time. As I loved hearing them. It was a pivotal moment in my academic orientation, though I didn’t know it at that time.